When Paul Mierkiewicz first took over as McPherson College head football coach in December of 2014, he didn’t even have enough players left from the previous regime for a spring game.
His 2015 spring practices looked like little more than rag-tag intramurals as the Bulldogs had about two dozen players left from the 2014 team.
So Mierkiewicz has basically been building the program from scratch. While he had a few more numbers last year, he’s still not where he wants to be.
On Saturday, though, the Bulldogs were able to field about 45 players for a spring game, with several more being held out due to injuries or players participating in baseball or track. He has close to 55 players expected to return in the fall, to be joined by incoming freshmen and transfers that should put the squad number somewhere between 90 and 100.
The result was an entertaining show for the fans because of the combination of quarterback Ed Crouch and receiver Eman McNeal.
Crouch rained four TD passes to McNeal, most of them spectacular rainbows as they showed they could be a lethal combination.
Crouch was second-team All-KCAC last year despite playing for a last-place team and behind the conference’s youngest offensive line, a testament to his athleticism. He can make plays both with his howitzer arm and tremendous speed. He threw for 2,198 yards last year and ran for another 849, though Mierkiewicz would probably like to see him run it less to save some wear and tear.
McNeal started fast last year as a freshman as he was a top target early in the season, but once KCAC play started he went through the usual first-year growing pains. But at 6-3, 180 pounds and blazing fast, he could be primed for a breakout year.
“He did a better job today of catching the ball,” Mierkiewicz said. “It sounds really simple, but he has a lot of ability and gets himself open... he can make some big plays for us.”
When the Bulldogs weren’t throwing it, running back Tyrone Campbell showed why he’ll be one of the KCAC’s best backs. He wiggled through the line for some big gains to keep the chains moving. He nearly had a 1,000-yard season last year with 943 and had he not been nagged late in the season with injuries, he would have hit the magic mark.
Because Mac had so little depth last year at running back, Campbell was beat up by the end of the season. But midseason transfer Armond McCray showed that he could be a nice complement to Campbell by flashing some quick-hitting potential.
The big-play offense was one of the bright spots according to Mierkiewicz, whose team was 1-10 last year, but six of those losses were by 10 points or less, including the final game of the season against Bethany when the Swedes kicked a 46-yard field goal on the final play of the game for an 18-15 victory after Mac had led nearly the entire game, which in retrospect was a microcosm of its season.
“I was really happy with the way we competed on both sides of the ball,” Mierkiewicz said after the two 20-minutes halves. “I think it was about 50-50. I think our guys pushed each other really well and I was happy with the outcome. When we had our (No.) 1s against our (No.) 1, it was really competitive.”
The big concern is a lingering concern — depth. Mierkiewicz made no secret that he needs a big recruiting year to get the numbers on par with other schools in the KCAC as the Bulldogs haven’t recovered from the fallout after 2014 when most of the team departed after Steve Fox left for Texas.
For example, both Bethany and Kansas Wesleyan had their spring games as well on Saturday and both schools had more than 80 players taking part. The biggest area of improvement has to come in the offensive line as there were only six linemen available due to injuries and attrition. Mierkiewicz said, though, he needs to bolster the numbers in all areas to create competition in practice.